Crusoe-craft

There are a lot of things about Robinson Crusoe that bother me—which is why I keep coming back to it, like a dog to its vomit—and one of those things is Crusoe’s lackadaisical attitude toward making a survey of his island. And he does consider it his island, declaring himself “King and Lord” after a mere ten months—incidentally, on his first survey of the island, which doesn’t get him very far. It’s another year before he walks to the other side of the island, and it’s not until his sixth year that he attempts to sail around the island—and even then, he only makes it about halfway. By the time he leaves the island—twenty-eight years after being shipwrecked!—he still hasn’t seen it all. And it’s not that big an island.

[Digression: there’s no way of telling how big the island actually is, at least to the best of my memory. When he walks across it, he goes about two miles a day, but not in anything like a straight line, and he doesn’t indicate how long it takes him to get to the other side, or the shape of the island, or how he’s bisected it, &c. Even if we call it 20 square miles (roughly the size of Manhattan), that’s half the size of the town I live in, and it wouldn’t take me 28 years to cover it all on foot.]

More to the point: Crusoe is worried, from day one, that he’s going to be attacked and eaten by either wild beasts or cannibals. So sure, it makes sense that his first priority is establishing a fortification of some sort—and raiding the ship he was on (which conveniently survives intact) for anything and everything he can carry. Fine. But, that done, it seems like it would be prudent to do a moderately thorough survey of the island to ascertain if beasts and/or cannibals are actually, you know, an imminent threat.

Because cannibals do visit the island periodically, to kill, cook, and eat their captives, and Crusoe does eventually find their feasting grounds—a “Shore spread with Skulls, Hands, Feet, and other Bones of humane Bodies”—but he doesn’t make this discovery until he’s been on the island for twenty years.

What the fuck.

Maybe it doesn’t bother you; it’s always bothered me. The shore where the cannibals land is on the west side of the island, an “End of the Island, where indeed,” Crusoe says, “I had never been before.” A whole side of the island, and he’s never been there! Crusoe is both king and colonist, and both of those roles would seem to demand a more-than-cursory—not to say intimate—knowledge of the land one’s claimed. And, in fairness, Crusoe’s knowledge of (parts of) the island is indeed intimate—the growing seasons, the goats, the (useful) flora—but the wide blank swaths on his (metaphorical/mental) map of the island are a glaring omission.

I am writing about this because of Minecraft.

the view from my front porch

Minecraft first appeared on my radar late in 2011 (via a Geekdad post on LEGO Minecraft—now a real thing), but I didn’t start playing it until about six nine or ten weeks ago, when my daughter convinced me to buy the Pocket Edition for the family iPad. It wasn’t long before I was hooked.

Minecraft, if you’re unfamiliar with it, is a sandbox game: there are no objectives, no goals, no levels—just a chunk of world, rocks and trees and dirt and water, &c, which one ‘mines’ and then ‘crafts’ into tools and building materials. There are animals—chickens, sheep, cows, pigs—and, if one wants antagonists, zombies of various sorts and giant spiders, which come out at night. It’s awesome.

In the full version (which I haven’t played), the world is infinite; but in the Pocket Edition, there are limits: it’s 256 x 256 blocks (according to the Minecraft wiki—I haven’t actually counted, and I would’ve guessed a bit higher than that—and there is also a limit to its depth). The player-avatar is two blocks tall, and since I’m roughly six feet tall, let’s say that each block is a 3′ cube. A Minecraft PE world, then, is 768 feet x 768 feet (not much more than an 1/8th of a mile)—which makes the surface area 589,824 square feet (the average Super-Walmart is about 197,000 square feet)——589,824 square feet, which is roughly 13.5 acres. (If the worlds are 512 blocks to a side, the surface area would be 54 acres—still far short of the 640 that are in a square mile.)

Thirteen and a half acres. Three Walmarts. And, of the half-dozen or so worlds I’ve generated and spent at least a few game-days (well, game-weeks) in, I have done a full and careful survey of none of them. Like Crusoe, I know some parts quite well, but I’ve also ignored whole sections—probably the very shores where the cannibals are landing.

So, like Crusoe, I’ve prioritized a full and careful—even a full and half-assed—survey of my island below a continual improvement of the habitation I pitched in the first semi-decent spot I came upon and a concomitant accumulation of material goods. (I also have a tendency to get bored with one world and start a new one before I ever get around to doing such a survey.) I would justify myself with “because that’s how the game is played,” but that isn’t a thing—it’s just how I play the game. Sure, the monsters start coming out once it’s night, which is about ten minutes after one starts playing—but there are responses to that occurrence beyond deciding on one’s place of permanent habitation in that first ten minutes.

So I understand Crusoe’s initial course of action, at least to the extent that I recognize that I have the same reaction in a similar (artificial, non-life-threatening) situation. I’m still baffled by his failure to ever get around to surveying his island, but I’m also less confident than I used to be that I, in Crusoe’s place—because that’s a thing I think about sometimes—wouldn’t do exactly the same thing.

kate beaton's crusoe!

Well, so what? Why is surveying one’s island kingdom so damn important?

There is the non-trivial matter of material resources: almost every time Crusoe sets out exploring, he finds something cool—a fertile vale, an abundance of turtles to eat, a cave that becomes a storeroom/fortress of last resort, even a stocked-but-abandoned Spanish vessel aground on a sandbar. (I finally did a full survey of my current Minecraft world in the middle of writing this, and found a shit-ton of clay, which I can use to make bricks, which are fucking classy.) Careful exploration, then, leads to (or can lead to) an improvement in quality of life—something Crusoe is quite invested in, trying as he is to replicate an English way of life on an island off the coast of Brazil.

Beyond that, though, Crusoe’s failure to survey his island strikes me as a failure of curiosity, a lack of desire to discover things merely for the sake of knowing them. I really shouldn’t expect Crusoe to display intellectual curiosity, of course, even if I let his lack of it annoy me anyway. What’s more troubling is that Robinson Crusoe is, in a variety of ways, the urtext of contemporary post-apocalyptic narratives—and when was the last time you saw someone reading Moby Dick while on the run from zombies, or trying to survive an outbreak of crazy swine flu, or trudging across a postnuclear hellscape? Exactly.

I’m not exactly sure what my end-game is—I thought I wanted to make some sort of point about survivalism in popular culture (also seasteading) and a related lack of intellectual curiosity, but I don’t know anymore. Maybe the point is this: preppers don’t stockpile books; zombie fortresses don’t include libraries. And while the percentage of Americans actively prepping for the collapse of society and/or constructing hypothetical zombie fortresses (there’s probably some significant overlap) might be small, shows like Doomsday Preppers and The Walking Dead draw substantial audiences (but at least the new Red Dawn tanked at the box office). That is: thinking about the collapse of civilization is something that lots of us do at least some of the time, and, in every survival narrative I can think of, life becomes—is reduced to—a Hobbesian state of nature, a war of all against all, and any semblance of civilization that persists does so only because a strong-willed leader forces it to. So this is what we expect, or what we’re being prepared to accept: when the shit hits the fan, might will make right—and maybe it already does.

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